ESA Developing “Infinite” 3D Printer?

By on March 15th, 2021 in printer

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ESA Developing “Infinite” 3D Printer?
A very long 3D print [Source: ESA]

The European Space Agency is developing a new 3D printer capable of producing objects of “infinite” length, and it might use a new design suitable for belt 3D printers.

This month the agency presented a sample 3D print from a prototype device, a 1.5m polymer bar. They say the 3D printer is “much smaller” than the bar itself.

This is all the result of Project IMPERIAL, an ESA venture attempting to develop methods of off-Earth manufacturing. The consortium of companies making up Project IMPERIAL is headed by Germany’s OHB, while other partners include Azimut Space and Athlone Institute. There’s one more partner that might be familiar to Fabbaloo readers: BEEVERYCREATIVE from Portugal.

BEEVERYCREATIVE has been producing desktop 3D printers for many years; I first saw them way back in 2013 with their cute but functional “BEETHEFIRST” inexpensive desktop 3D printer. Since that time they’ve produced updates to that line and now their flagship product is the Adventurer 3, which we’ll have to examine in a future post.

For the past five years BEEVERYCREATIVE has been involved in ESA projects. In 2016 they revealed that the new “MELT” 3D printer would not be an adaption on an existing 3D printer, but be sometime entirely new.

We haven’t heard much from the project since then, aside from some images of the MELT 3D printer released in 2018.

As you can see in this image, the MELT device appears to be of a standard Cartesian design using a filament process:

The MELT 3D Printer [Source: ESA]

Now we learn that they’ve apparently been developing a new style of device that’s capable of making “infinitely” long printed parts. I use quotes because that’s only in theory, as the size will always be limited by material availability, workshop size, etc.

Project IMPERIAL released this video of the new device:

This is about all we know about the new machine, and I have some observations:

  • This is clearly very different from the MELT 3D printer
  • The extrusion seems to produce layer lines at a 45 degree angle
  • There is a small raft-like structure at the bottom (?) of the bar
  • The print emerges at a downward angle
  • No tray seems to be required to support the emerging output
  • The speed of production is notably fast

That last point is perhaps the most interesting observation. The video appears to be in real time, if you watch the “hand” intervention. It’s not clear what the density of the 3D print could be, but even if hollow this is still incredibly fast.

Continuous 3D print emerging [Source: Project IMPERIAL]

The method of continuous 3D printing is not clear; it could be a belt design, or perhaps use another approach. My bet is that there is some type of small belt within the 3D printer that is the extrusion surface. The belt moves forward, and the 3D printer produces layers at a 45 degree angle, like other belt 3D printers.

One major problem with most belt 3D printers is that their horizontal output tends to bend as it comes off the belt. Gravity drags it downwards, and often the print is still either warm and/or thin, allowing a bend to occur.

Project IMPERIAL may have come upon a very interesting solution for this problem with belt 3D printers: if the 45 degree angle extrusion is itself tipped 45 degrees, then the mechanical stress on the extruded part is far less. This could reduce or maybe even eliminate bending.

Interestingly, you’ll note that in such a design the extruder doesn’t have to be tipped; it can continue to use the standard upright cartesian mechanical design. Only the print bed needs to be tipped.

This diagram shows how this might work:

Three concepts for 3D printing [Source: Fabbaloo]

If this works, it could be a new form of belt 3D printing specifically designed for production of longer pieces. However, it’s not clear at all yet what’s really happening inside the 3D printer.

On the other hand, in space there’s no gravity, so perhaps they don’t have to worry about such things.


By Kerry Stevenson

Kerry Stevenson, aka "General Fabb" has written over 8,000 stories on 3D printing at Fabbaloo since he launched the venture in 2007, with an intention to promote and grow the incredible technology of 3D printing across the world. So far, it seems to be working!

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